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Why climate change can never be ‘someone else’s problem’

March 13, 2014

After The Oregonian published a short article of mine on-line about the infamous ‘Oregon Petition’ – another bogus bit of nonsense that attempted to divide and conquer climate science – I checked back to see what the comments were like. As is so often the case with the climate change debate, there were a number of ironies on display, but also a more telling conclusion to be drawn.

I was struck by one comment, which connects with a number of other issues mentioned in the posts. It was this: “Who cares what an English writer thinks about anything?”.

The short answer is this: “Anyone who understands that the quality of an article doesn’t depend on where the writer was sitting when he wrote it”. But the remark also struck me as an echo of something the US has long abandoned – isolationism – and for any number of good, and mostly practical, reasons.

Before WW2, US foreign policy could largely be summed up as ‘fight your own goddam wars and leave us out of it’. Japan put paid to staying out of WW2 at Pearl Harbour, leaving the US no option but to abandon its long-standing policy of non-intervention. Yamamoto’s remark about waking ‘a sleeping giant’ may be the work of Hollywood scriptwriters, but they weren’t wrong.

During the second half of the twentieth century, America bestrode the world as giants do. It brought us miracles of technology and industry, culture and art. It also brought us rampant paranoia, imperialism, a series of devastating wars, and the most formidable military force the world had ever seen. Don’t get me wrong: nothing that the US did was exceptional except the scale at which it did it; the US was the new kid playing the Great Game, but just like everyone else they were only honing the skills, techniques, methods and mistakes of the Romans, the Khans, the Crusaders, the Machiavellis, the Napoleons and the British, among the many empire builders that have come and gone.

On balance, I’d say America has been a force for good, but we could argue that one forever and never reach any real conclusion. It doesn’t matter much, because we can’t change the past. We should observe the most crucial change this has wrought, however; the impact of globalisation.

*****

We live in a joined up world. Trade and finance have become so internationalised that only the colour of our money is different; where it comes from and where it goes to is frequently a global destination. Art and culture are international; we watch the Wire, Americans listen to Mumford & Sons. And so too is science international. Nobody gets their own periodic table; electrons serving conservatives don’t spin in the opposite direction to those powering the left.

And then there’s the first ever truly global threat: Climate change. There is little point in any country looking inward now, because no matter where you live, your CO2 is my CO2. The extra energy we’re adding to the climate, and that contributes to extreme weather (it doesn’t cause it, just makes it worse), will make my weather just as erratic as everyone else’s. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run; whatever is coming for us is going to be very democratic, in a horridly ironic way: we’re all going to get shafted.

Returning to the comments below my article, the attempt to exclude me on the basis of my nationality seemed really old fashioned. Another irony was the international consistency of climate change contrarian arguments; I might as well have been reading the usual suspects in the Guardian forums for all the difference I could detect. It seems that climate change denial is as globalised as everything else, despite their parochial observations to the contrary.

For example, the models get various mentions. Climate models are the lowest of low-hanging fruit in the public discourse, because nobody knows anything about them. Consequently, it’s very easy to make gross generalisations about them, how bad they are and all that. It’s not very credible to criticise models because they are not exact; they can’t be, given that climate is fundamentally chaotic (non-linear, in the jargon). Models are like maps: X may mark the spot, but the map can’t tell you you how long it will take you to reach it, particularly if you choose a circuitous route. We’re always going to be disappointed if our expectations are unreasonable.

Science is working very hard to understand a very complex thing; how we’re affecting the climate, and all the inter-relationships that contribute to our daily weather, wherever we are. It’s actually done a good job in general, and so too have the models, which you can read about here. It’s also untrue that the current slow-down in surface temperatures was never predicted; in fact, as far back as 1979, the Charney Report did exactly that – they just couldn’t put a date on it:

“One of the major uncertainties has to do with the transfer of the increased heat into the oceans. It is well known that the oceans are a thermal regulator, warming the air in winter and cooling it in summer. The standard assumption has been that, while heat is transferred rapidly into a relatively thin, well- mixed surface layer of the ocean (averaging about 70 m in depth), the trans­fer into the deeper waters is so slow that the atmospheric temperature reaches effective equilibrium with the mixed layer in a decade or so…It seems to us quite possible that the capacity of the deeper oceans to absorb heat has been seriously underestimated, especially that of the intermediate waters of the subtropical gyres lying below the mixed layer and above the main thermo­cline. If this is so, warming will proceed at a slower rate until these inter­mediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat.

“Our estimates of the rates of vertical exchange of mass between the mixed and intermediate layers and the volumes of water involved give a delay of the order of decades in the time at which thermal equilibrium will be reached. This delay implies that the actual warming at any given time will be appre­ciably less than that calculated on the assumption that thermal equilibrium is reached quickly. One consequence may be that perceptible temperature changes may not become apparent nearly so soon as has been anticipated. We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable. The equilibrium warming will eventually occur; it will merely have been postponed”.

The Charney report was written in 1979. The models the report was based on – all two of them – ran on computers with a lot less power than my mobile phone. None the less, the report’s authors still accurately predicted the intermittent nature of surface temperature warming that climate change deniers keep claiming has never figured previously.

*****

The understanding, analysis and projection of future global warming is a subject for the experts. I believe climate scientists; I have no reason not to. Scientists gave us all the wonders and terrors of the modern world, and they get better at science every day. There’s a huge effort by vested interests to undermine our trust, to convince us that scientists are arguing about climate change when they’re not. But if we want to understand how fast this problem is coming at us, we only have to look out of the window; the isolationist argument is that ‘we’ve always had…(rain, snow, wind, fire, draughts etc)’. Yet when was the last time the entire planet had extreme weather, all at the same time? Here’s Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, during a visit to the UK’s Guardian recently:

  “The “very strange” weather experienced across the world over the last two years was a sign “we are [already] experiencing climate change,” she declared. “”If you take them individually you can say maybe it’s a fluke. The problem is it’s not a fluke and you can’t take them individually. What it’s doing is giving us a pattern of abnormality that’s becoming the norm.”

Climate change is global, and no amount of isolationism is going to protect us. This is the first time humanity has faced a problem we can’t avoid by taking sides. We need to work together, to understand not what divides us, but what we share, what we have in common that we need to protect, and what forces for self-interest are trying to convince us that a clear and present danger really isn’t any such thing. They do this by foisting dud petitions on us, they do it by constantly attacking the probity and skill of climate scientists, and they do it by pretending that bad weather is only happening in their back yards, instead of everybody’s.

We have a lot in common, right across this joined up world. And when it comes to climate change, what we share is a threat to every man, woman, child and dollar on the planet. It’s about time we stopped trying to find the differences between us, and started to value the things we all share, and that mean so much to us – the quality of our lives, and the hopes we hold for our children.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil Winder permalink
    March 13, 2014 12:34 pm

    If there was an award for thoughtful, well researched and well written articles on climate change you’d get it.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 13, 2014 1:22 pm

    Hi Neil – nice to hear from you. And thanks so much, I do appreciate it.

    Fact is, I’m winning the argument…in my house, that is…(I live on my own) 🙂

  3. Rosemary Jones permalink
    March 13, 2014 1:36 pm

    Maybe we could think about restricting Blog Space to solutions ?

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 13, 2014 6:41 pm

    No idea what you meant by that Rosemary. You can write about solutions on your blog if you feel that’s important to you.

    But perhaps that isn’t what you meant. Would you like to make clear the point you’re making – or are we having a problem?

  5. March 14, 2014 3:47 pm

    As an expatriate Oregonian who lived there most of my life, I have to say that the views of anyone who provides thoughtful observations in the form of a reality check is and should always be welcome by other Oregonians who actually care. Sadly, the character of the ‘Oregon outlook’ is not what it once was, and innovations like sane land-use planning, first proposed by Republican Governor Tom McCall, have been completely undermined by outside influences afraid of the precedent of growth by design.

    Today’s Oregon Republicans enjoy referring to the example of Tom McCall whenever they propose an action of subterfuge under the guise of progressive ideas. But in the end, they are marching to the Koch Bros’ drummer channeled through the very loudspeakers dominating the Dorchester Conference.

    A bad idea is a bad idea, and your call on the Oregon Petition is spot-on.

    RA

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 14, 2014 5:53 pm

    Hi RA,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s hard to believe things could have changed that much (since I was there in 1999); I actually hope that those with less open minds to constructive observations may still be as few as I found, but perhaps more vocal (and more prominent) because they now have a medium (blogs etc) by which to express themselves forcefully, and behind a screen name. Back then, e-commerce had barely started, and the dot com crash was yet to bring a sanity check to the world at large. Anyway, it’s kind and thoughtful of you to post here, and typical of the Oregonians I remember with fondness.

  7. manicbeancounter permalink
    March 23, 2014 5:02 pm

    You make a very good point that rising CO2 is a global problem. What is more there is a direct relationship between CO2 emissions and CO2 levels. Comparing global emissions from the World Bank data and the Mauna Loa CO2 levels, gives around 15bn tonnes of emissions to raise CO2 levels by 1ppm. Between 1990 and 2010 global emissions increased by around 50%. Most of this growth came from the major emerging nations. What is more, the major rich nations (Australia, Canada, EU, Japan and USA) had combined emissions in 2010 of about 10 bn tonnes, about the same as the global increase. It leaves a huge policy problem. Even if the ACEJU countries cut emissions by 80% by 2050, global emissions will still be higher than today. Yet the emerging economies have more to lose by the policy effects on economic growth than any of the worst projected consequences of climate change.
    Those countries with policy will make very little difference to a global problem, but will bear the huge policy costs. So nationally, policy-makers will work against the best interests of their citizens, even though if all nations “did their bit” policy would be in their national interest.

  8. Rosemary Jones permalink
    March 24, 2014 3:27 am

    How come a ten year old could work out that a significantly decreasing albedo results in a hotter planet, yet all the environmental ministers attending a recent Council of Europe meeting in Brussels stick to the inaccurate narrative that reducing emissions will by itself prevent runaway warming ?

    The ice nearest the North Pole is melting faster than that nearer the South Pole because the
    surrounding land bases in the Arctic regions are absorbing more heat now so much of their ice (and therefore reflectivity) is gone, and that warms the seas, which in turn melts more ice.

    Even a ten year old would be able to understand that it is necessary to get the ice bereft rock reflecting again, and that this is safely achievable by spraying it with chalk based solar reflective paint, which, like ice and snow reflects up to 90% of incoming sunlight.

    Surely, if we have to spend so much time and energy dropping water on wildfires, we can spray paint ice bereft rock, anyway for a year until the natural system kicks in again.

  9. May 11, 2014 8:28 pm

    Excellent article Graham. But why do deniers deny? I just read another well balanced article elsewhere and a good fraction of the comments were from climate change deniers. They consistently misreported well defined data and cast doubt on scientists personally. What do they seek to gain? I am baffled.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    May 12, 2014 6:19 am

    @Fix-My-PC.net: “why do deniers deny?”
    Complex question to answer, I think – and the complexity is why it’s hard to know how to combat the phenomenon. In part, there’s enough history to suggest that many people will believe what reinforces what they already believe, or want to believe. By the same token, there are many people who have conflated the collective nature of the solution (it’s global) with an ideological system that also advocates collectivism – socialism – and oppose the science because they think it too is driven by ideology rather than fact. And then, perhaps most despicably, there are those who deny climate change because they or their mates can make more money out of business as usual than out of accepting change (or so they think).
    That’s just brushing the surface of the problem, but money, ideology, fear and ignorance are the key drivers, as they are of so many societal ailments.

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